It was the last meeting of my philosophy class’s discussion section, and the TA was waxing nostalgic. As she said her goodbyes, she dispensed the customary closing platitude: “I hope that, if this class has taught you anything, it’s to question everything.” Five years ago, when I stuck a “Question Everything” pin on my backpack and drove to high school, it would have sounded like good advice. But this time around, I couldn’t wait to walk out the door.
Most in college today are old enough to be able to look at photos of their young selves existing in a previous age of fashion and respond with some combination of chuckling and cringing. It’s also possible to do that with thoughts — previously held opinions or worries that seem careless or trivial today. It’s usually a good thing, a sign of growing up.
This was the case, for a while, with “question everything.” Teenagers are prone to love this motto. They use it with their parents, with their teachers (sometimes to their face), and they use it internally when considering the ideas they read or hear about. Every easy target — everything that sounds “stupid,” by whatever criteria used, gets an eye roll and a list of obnoxious, incredulous questions. Sometimes it’s merited, but usually it’s not.
I was, for the most part, no different. Most of what people said that I didn’t immediately agree with was clearly because of fatal flaws in their reasoning. There was no time for that which wasn’t useful or didn’t feel right.
But something goes unrealized when you go around “questioning everything.” You’re rarely turning the critical eye inward. What ends up happening is that you do whatever you want, living in the present moment, and regarding everything else with doubt.
The present is the most selfish of times, more so than the past — which is gone and therefore useless — and more so than the future, which invites all sorts of considerations and can’t be used now. But the present is here: We consume it like a car consumes gas, only we’re continually running for about eighty years or so. We’re burning through every minute, every step, everything we eat, read, every person we talk to. And to question everything is the ultimate way to live in the present and the present alone — because, sold as noble skepticism, it’s a license to live free of being tied to something that directs us away from mere consumption.
A country, much like a person, is only as great as the stories it tells itself about itself. The stories aren’t always completely true and they’re usually more than a little self-serving. But often, the story provides a background to check against when things go awry — take the American commitment to equality in political rhetoric compared with the history of slavery. It was because the ideal existed in the first place that gave us something to compare the reality to. It allowed for the point at which people started saying, “Wait. We’re not who we say we are.”
It works with people, too. We all know we believe things about ourselves that aren’t wholly accurate, even if we wish they were. But they’re probably at least somewhat true, and we seek to make our realities conform better to the ideal. Sure, without the reflective aspect, both countries and people can lapse into ignorant chest thumping: patriotism becomes nationalism and self-respect becomes narcissism. But without the ultimate belief in the story, all we have are our whims and desires of the moment.
It has become so hard to identify with any situation not your own. Maybe it was always like this, but it seems like so much of our existence nowadays is spent doing things that allow us to see reflections of ourselves — the clubs we join, the people we associate with, the technology we use.
“But we all volunteer!” you say. “Every summer! And we all have friends with different beliefs than us!” Yet I wonder if this is usually a case of feeling or just observing and using for our own sake. Most will never feel living on a dollar a day, even if they know what it means. Religion’s another case. I remember hearing an exchange between two friends, where one said he was religious, and explained what that meant for his beliefs about the world and his place in it. The other said, with astonishment, “You actually believe that?”
People in the West, in the fifty years since what you believed could determine life or death, have become experts at living life with a constant mirror held up to themselves while everything else is “problematic.” Now, whether or not we smash it might be the difference between significant human connection and lonely, self-absorbed obscurity.
John Aroutiounian is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .